To Dwell There: A Conversation with George Raab

by JANN LM BAILEY, July 2013

In the early twentieth century, a group of artists, working primarily in Ontario and Quebec and inspired by European Post-Impressionist movements, presented paintings to the Canadian public as the expression of a national art. They had broken with a long-standing portrayal of the landscape based on the prescriptions of the Picturesque and its privileging of an Arcadian past. Although urban landscapes and the rolling hills and farmsteads of Quebec were eminent in the work of the Group of Seven, their work was dominated by their images of the land celebrating its unpeopled and pristine wilderness.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the Canadian landscape and its representation continued to affect artists, curators, critics, and scholars. Depicted first as wilderness and then as occupied and settled, the land is now represented as a precious legacy that is both inspiring and worth preserving. Such a representation is deeply embedded in the realms of the political, social, spiritual and the aesthetic.

The conflicting motives behind resource extraction on the one hand, and the preservation of nature on the other, are at the forefront for us in twenty-first-century. Our attachment to the land has shaped our unique character and identity as a people.

As Vancouver playwright John Gray proclaimed in his address to the tenth anniversary conference of the Association of Cultural Executives in Waterloo:

“Canada is a highly sophisticated country; created just late enough to avoid becoming a traditional European nation-state. This gives us some identity problems, but it also gives us insights that other countries would do well to emulate. For example, as a general order of priority, Canadians regard the survival of the earth as more important than the survival of Canada. Canada doesn’t regard nature as something to be conquered. Heritage and weather warn us against this, and we’re right. Other nations don’t share this view. One country’s reality is another country’s revelation. Canada has something to tell the world.”1

Nature has inspired artists for many centuries. Up until the 1600s, for example, landscapes often served as handsome backdrops to religious subject matter. Western culture is still dominated by rationalism at this time. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Romantic Movement and its cult of nature emancipated landscape from its supporting role. Aesthetic theory of the Sublime was formulated and followed by the principles of the Picturesque. Impressionists sought to strip away the varnish of culture by presenting the landscape as a reflection of light in time. With Post-Impressionism, artists shifted to a more emotionally charged terrain by producing bold and expressive canvases. Some artists sought to express nationalistic aspirations through the depiction of a national landscape. Such were the legacies that motivated the Group of Seven.

George Raab has been inspired by the Canadian landscape for the past four decades. The dramatic features of the Kawartha topography in the Canadian Shield, with its multitude of rivers, lakes, marshes, bogs, and vast boreal forests, surround him. His work is grounded in the exploration of these natural ecosystems: “Natural areas sustain me and my printmaking is an excuse to dwell there.”2 His technically sophisticated prints convey a sense of wonder and evoke the highly sensual experience that comes from its simple reverence to things seen and observed.

I have known the artist for the better part of his professional career. In the following conversation, I asked him if his work is a romanticization of the natural world.3

JLMB: Are we, as a global community in the throes of environmental crisis, still trying to emulate the Group of Seven and the visual contribution that its members made to art in Canada? Are we still hoping to find a “wild Canadian landscape?”

GR: I don’t see my work as romanticizing the landscape (although it is informed by the Picturesque). The Group of Seven opened my eyes and imagination to the beauty and wonder of the Canadian north. I am drawn to its dark and craggy corners, thick spring fog in the woods, and fading backlit silhouettes at dusk. At times, my “wild Canadian landscape” is just steps from my studio door.

At other times, it is many kilometers from the nearest road. For me, the “wild” exists in remote places (even if it can, to a lesser degree, be understood and appreciated in the secluded corners of an urban park or backyard). I would like my etchings to evoke the same emotions that I experience when gathering references for them. These references might take the form of a pattern visible in a reflection of water or an ethereal tree.

JLMB: Artists are the translators of this shifting cultural terrain in terms of approaches to recent art theory. When considering the diverse philosophies surrounding our concept of the land, do we read it as nature or culture?

GR: I don’t think about it. But under scrutiny, my work does encapsulate facets of the aesthetic, political, and spiritual and the notion that we can find peace and solace in nature (or whatever is left of it). I believe that it is only in nature where we can truly find peace and solace. I hope that my landscapes allow viewers to inject their own sense of place into them. This is why I never title my works with place names. I also hope that my complex and contemplative etchings reflect my environmental concerns and inspire viewers to protect the areas depicted. I am committed to the preservation of our natural heritage in terms of how and where I live and the prints that I produce as an artist.

JLMB: Printmakers are passionate about the medium and its ability to implicitly and skillfully manipulate texture and colour. Yet it is a medium that ebbs and flows within the established system of art (much like drawing) in that it is appreciated as a unique art form but also largely ignored. The medium is mired in public confusion: prints are largely seen in terms of reproduction rather than as original works of art. In recent years, digital technology has played a significant role in the creation of prints and has brought about exciting changes. It has, however, added to the ongoing debate by forcing us to reassess what constitutes an “original” work of art (especially in terms of the status of original prints).

GR: I remember when offset printing of wildlife art gained a massive following in Canada during the 1990s. The images were marketed as fine art prints on archival paper (rather than mechanical reproductions of paintings) and signed and numbered by the artist. Many editions were numbered in the thousands. The publisher-driven investment market for these “prints” has since ebbed. But the phenomena opened my eyes to the fact that there was a keen appreciation for images depicting scenes of nature and its wildlife in Canada as well as the fact that cutting-edge technology in the making and mass marketing of prints was here to stay. In my experience of jurying fine art shows, I have seen the criteria for what constitutes original artwork rapidly change. In photography, the change has been from handprinted silver gelatin darkroom prints and film cameras to digital camera images printed with digital printers. In printmaking, there are now commercial print studios and ateliers that produce handprinted digital serigraphs derived from artist paintings as well as hand-printed photogravure editions from digital images for photographers to sign and market.

JLMB: How has your worked changed with the integration of computer technology?

GR: I find the ability to merge the traditional techniques of etching and aquatinting with computer technology exhilarating and overwhelming. I have spent decades developing photographs and film positives in my darkroom for my etchings. When positive film was no longer being made, I converted my filmbased photographs into digital images. This meant that I was no longer limited by my darkroom or enlarger and could make much larger images. So I began to combine two-by-three foot zinc plates and made etchings that were comprised of up to nine plates. They were printed on three attached pieces of paper and were six-by-nine feet in size. I extended the bed of my etching press to eight feet in order to pull six foot images on a single piece of etching paper. Most recently, I pulled an etching that is made up of five full etching plates that is four-by-eleven feet. Being able to push the size of my intaglio prints is significant since the medium is generally known for its small and intimate images. The centuries old rich tones and textures of the fused rosin powder aquatints which I continue to use and which so aptly captures my impressions of the landscape, merges well with my digitally enlarged format.

Technology will continue to be embraced by artists and a rich discussion between culture and nature will continue to occupy those invested in contemporary art discourse. Regardless of shifting cultural opinions, it is important to consider the work of Raab in terms of its intended purpose so eloquently expressed within this conversation. There is a point when curatorial debate could trivialize and even obfuscate the artist’s very simple intent. George Raab is eager to continue to explore the digital printing technology inspired by this exhibition, motivated by his deeprooted passion in the land itself.

He concluded our discussion while on the road in Colorado: “I’m going to head off on one of my favourite Rocky Mountain hikes this afternoon to Blue Lake in the Brainard Lake area near Estes Park west of Boulder. It will let me know how much older I am and how lucky I am to be in this pristine wonderland. The alpine glaciers are melting, the mountain creeks are gushing, the wildflowers are peaking, the colours seem saturated, and the air, although thin to my Ontario lungs, is as sweet as the honey. As wonderful as this landscape is, the familiar hills and beautiful forests surrounding my studio in the Kawarthas will always be my home and inspiration.”

1. John Gray, “A Distinctive National Culture” in The Cultural Imperative: Creating New Management for the Arts, ed. Shirley Mann Gibson (Toronto: Association of Cultural Executives, 1986), 139.

2. This statement was made to the author on June 11, 2013.

3. This conversation took place on June 11 and July 3, 2013.

References:

Towards the Group of Seven and Beyond: Canadian Art in the First Five Decades of the Twentieth Century, Leslie Dawn and Kamloops Art Gallery, 1998

Landscape and Power, Edited by W.J.T. Mitchell, University of Chicago, 1994

Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama, Random House of Canada Ltd, 1995

Turner and the Sublime, Andrew Wilton, British Museum Publication for The Art Gallery of Ontario, 1980

The Cultural Imperative: Creating New Management for the Arts, Proceedings of a conference organized by the Association of Cultural Executives in association with the University of Waterloo, 1986

Modern Painters, John Ruskin, 1843, 1846, 1856

Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke, 1757

Picturing the Land: Narrating Territories in Canadian Landscape Art, 1500-1950, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Marylin J. McKay, 2011

Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art, John O’Brian, Peter White, 2007

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